A few days ago, Uttarakhand witnessed yet another flood and I am not sure I want to call it a “natural disaster” which could give the impression that it wasn’t caused by human activity. Since I am no expert on the subject, let’s just say that it may or may not have been caused by […]

A few days ago, Uttarakhand witnessed yet another flood and I am not sure I want to call it a “natural disaster” which could give the impression that it wasn’t caused by human activity. Since I am no expert on the subject, let’s just say that it may or may not have been caused by human activity and until the experts give an opinion, I am not willing to rule out the real possibility that human activity was responsible for it. As usual, social media was agog with feverish activity and opinions were being churned out by netizens by the second. Within a matter of minutes of the news of the flood breaking out, the debate predictably turned political. Sure, nine out of ten times one cannot expect political parties to look beyond politics and I accept that as the reality of the times we live in. I don’t say this from a position of cynicism, I am just stating the situation for what it is. However, what was disconcerting was that even members of the public, instead of going beyond politics on a subject that involves nature, were comfortable limiting the scope of their enlightened and informed debates to politics on platforms that have no love lost for nuance.

I use disconcerting and not surprising because the unfortunate reality is that politics has become the lens through which every issue, regardless of the seriousness it deserves, is analysed. I also realized that environment/nature is perhaps among the most heavily politicized of topics given that it has a bearing on “development” and “economy”. Any discussion on the balance to be struck between “development” and respect for “nature”, the fashionably coined “sustainable development”, affects a lot of pockets at several levels. Therefore, given the propensity for conflict of interest, it would be naïve to not expect the debate around nature to not turn political and personal. However, for a land which has been associated with rivers, forests, floral and faunal diversity, so much so that this was the image of Bharat in the European colonizer’s popular and stereotypical representation barely 127 years ago in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, it is indeed tragic that Bharat unfailingly witnesses “natural disasters” almost every year for causes which are not entirely “natural”.

To not revisit our approach to “development” despite annual and increasingly deadly reminders and warnings by nature would be, dare I say, monumentally myopic and foolish. Such an attitude only puts on stark display the humungous size of the human ego which has been inflated owing to the adoption of the European colonizer’s Cartesian dualist approach to the relationship between humans and nature. In this regard, here’s an extract from the 36th piece under this column, titled “Indigeneity, land ontologies and ‘development’”, wherein I wrote thus:

“I had ended the last piece on the note that one of the fundamental distinctions between the European colonizer and indigenous peoples who were colonized was the difference in their land ontologies. In the case of the former, his Christian Onto-epistemological and theological (OET) framework informed his land ontology whereas a spiritual land ethic, scholars believe, shaped the very OET of most indigenous societies. The nexus between the subject-object cartesian dualism of the colonizer’s OET and the Lockean position on ownership of land/creation of a proprietorial interest in land is not that difficult a connection to draw. In stark contrast, most indigenous societies, until afflicted by “modernity” owing to the European colonizer’s advent, shared a sacred and harmonious relationship with nature which was not seen merely as an object of conquest and possession. It is this distinction in attitudes that brings out in stark relief the devastating impact that universalizing Europeanism has had on nature across the world.

That the colonial attitude towards nature has a direct bearing on metrics of “development” is supported by several scholars of coloniality. A colonialized and hence homogenised approach to development has resulted in every society aspiring for the same way and quality of life regardless of its local conditions. Hypothetically speaking, it is as good or as bad as Uttarakhand, an eco-sensitive zone, aspiring for the same degree of road connectivity and “infrastructure” as Delhi notwithstanding the environmental impact of ceaseless “developmental” activity on its fragile ecological balance.”

Let me clarify that this is certainly not my “I told you so” moment given that the lives of millions of people are involved and the future of an entire ecosystem, I mean the natural ecosystem and not an ideological ecosystem, is at stake. All I am saying is given that Bharat has so many mouths to feed and it is not exactly flush with resources to feed everyone, more than any other country, it is for Bharat to ask itself as to how it wishes to define “development” and whether it is possible for Bharat to sustain the model of “sustainable development” which is followed by the West. Again, the idea is not to reject anything good that may come from any part of the world, but every idea needs to be tested on the anvils of local validity, especially natural and cultural, instead of buying into universalized Eurocentric/Western notions of development. Critically, the more Bharat subscribes to the Left-Right binary which pushes environmentalism in the basket of the Left and development in the basket of the Right, it is bound to find itself with limited options to deal with its unique realities given the adversarial, antagonistic and schismatic pitting of environment and development. To paraphrase decolonial thought in this regard, problems caused by Eurocentrism, including in matters of nature and development, cannot be addressed by Eurocentric solutions. The breakout strategy then, is to think local and put faith in the received wisdom of indigenous communities which have nurtured nature for millennia, and paying heed to them even if they do not pass muster on our contrived and colonially imposed anvils of “modernity” and its attendant trappings.

I am alive to the fact that Bharat’s realities require a considered position that takes into account several geo-political, economic and strategic factors given that it is situated in perhaps among the most volatile and hostile of regions in the world. That said, if not for any other reason, purely from a mercantile perspective, since the economic cost of a complete breakdown of ecology could be exorbitant, unpayable, irreversible and irreparable, Bharat has no other option but to look for guidance from its own vast reservoir of indigenous thought on respect for nature before it is too late. After all, respect for nature is one of the most integral and indispensable layers of Dharma.

If these views invite labels which are intended to be pejorative such as “tree hugger”, so be it; I embrace them all. I’d rather attempt to be Dharmic and fail originally than blindly ape Western thought and succeed spectacularly as a shallow and cheap mimic. In any case, I subscribe to Dharmic thought which declares without reservation thus- “यतः कृष्णस्ततो धर्मो यतो धर्मस्ततो जयः”.

J. Sai Deepak is an Advocate practising as an arguing counsel before the Supreme Court of India and the High Court of Delhi.